Back at the end of June, I posted about the problems heat zone gardeners face with peat-based potting mix (you can read that post here). A few days later, I picked up some Cleome plants at Nelson's Water Gardens, thinking they would add a nice punch of color to a bed out back. They had been watered at the nursery that morning and were full of buds and blooms. I set them in a bed and went about the rest of my day. The next morning, I walked out and found this sad sight:

I foolishly neglected to check on them the afternoon I brought them home; left in the blazing July sun, the peat dried and hardened very quickly. Only one of the plants was able to rebound. I removed the plant from its 4 inch pot and used a gentle spray of water to wash the potting mix off the roots. I dug a hole, watered that well, then placed the Cleome into the hole and watered the area around it again after planting. I forgot to water it the day after that and was sure I was going to find it on the edge of death when I finally remembered a couple of days later. I was very surprised to find that not only was it alive, it was thriving. Just over 4 weeks later, this is how it looks. Well, slap my face and call me sassy but I doubt it would still be with me had I not removed the potting mix.

I've since tried this with other plants and it continues to make a tremendous difference in their survival rate. I talked with Rolf Nelson about it at the time I bought the Cleomes and he confirmed that they always wash the potting mix off before planting, no matter what the season. Today I was out back watering and I found more peat victims: two badly wilted pentas that were planted at least 3 months ago and have been watered semi-regularly. I yanked them up and came inside to grab the camera so I could use them as yet another exhibit in my case against peat. The top plant managed to spread its roots outside of the original pot shape a bit; the bottom one clearly did not.

Once again, I used a gentle stream of water to wash the soil off the roots of the plants, then potted them up, resulting in this sorry sight (the pink flowers are verbena, not penta ... sorry, I didn't pick the best spot to take a picture).

But wait ... there's more! Take a look at the difference in them not two hours later.

I went out just now to check on them and take a picture, in the interest of full disclosure. The one whose roots were constricted was struggling. I took it out of the shared pot, cleaned it up and repotted it by itself.

Although it's most critical in my garden that this method be used with peat based potting mixes, I also used it recently when planting eleven Gulf Coast Muhly grasses (Muhlenbergia capillaris). Although they were in a fairly loose and well drained mix composed of compost and bark, they had been in their pots for a while and their roots needed some loosening up. After I'd done that, I washed off at least one-third of the soil on each of them before planting them. As usual, I watered the hole first and then rewatered the area after covering the roots. The grasses are in a bed covered by the sprinkler system so they've been watered every 2 days. They seem to be settling in quite nicely.

So there you have it, a method that enables those of us gardening in the heat to plant even in July! That said, I will stress that if you do buy plants in temperatures like we're currently experiencing and they're in a peat-based potting medium, you probably should plant them the day you buy them. If you don't, be sure you put them in an area where they get afternoon shade AND remember to water them at least twice a day. And while this method has worked for heat-loving summer annuals and grasses, I'm not so sure how perennials would fare. It's probably best to wait for cooler weather to plant those. Only 55 days till October 1st, when we know the worst is behind us and life in the garden can begin anew!


Pam/Digging said…
Great advice, Cindy. I am convinced. However, I still don't feel like planting anything that isn't a cactus right now. It's just too frigging hot.
Oh, my goodness, Cindy. This post should be stumbled everywhere south of the Mason Dixon line. I'm going to try this method too because peat just isn't good for plants in our hot neck of the woods. Great advice.~~Dee
Rose said…
This is great advice, Cindy. I'm not sure how critical this is where I live, but I've noticed a lot of my end-of-the season bargains are root-constricted and seem to be planted in solid rock. Although I always break up the roots, I had never thought about removing the soil medium before. I've been trying this on some recent purchases. Your cleome is a great success story!
Ramble on Rose said…
Thanks for the tip! Peat has this reputation for holding moisture, but it can really dry into a solid brick.
Unknown said…
Thanks for the info and pictures..I'm going to try this from now on on all my transplants and will hope for more success with those sixpacks I can't seem to resist buying.
I am almost wanting to run out and buy something just to try makes so much sense to me I am amazed we've never heard of it before! Thank you!
Gail said…
This has been the best advice I've followed all summer! Thank you for reminding us. You might need to remind us again this fall when we start fall planting! gail
Such good advice Cindy!

I am counting the days until October. Losing that tree with west sun bearing down is a killer. We are trying so hard not to lose everything. Ugh....hurry up fall!
Cindy, MCOK said…
Pam, I agree! I wouldn't advocate planting anything right now by any means. But you know how it is ... the car turns into the nursery of his own volition and the next thing you know, you're standing on the patio wondering what in the HELL you were thinking!

Dee, I think you'll see a positive difference. Washing the roots off seems to keep them fairly intact, so there's less trauma to the plants.

Rose, I bought some Muhly grass on clearance from Lowe's back in June. I didn't wash off the soil before planting. All but 3 of them died and those 3 aren't looking any too good. When I pulled up the ones that died, they were still horribly constricted. I had loosened the roots slightly when planting, but didn't want to overdo it. Not my best decision!

RambleonRose, once the peat has dried out here, it is indeed rock solid. When you think about the fact that they've used peat bricks in Ireland for building houses, it does give you pause.

Nancy, I meant to tell you re the six packs: we did not sell them at the nursery where I worked because we found that the root systems were too poorly developed for the plants to thrive. They're more expensive in the long run than 4 inch pots because so many of those sixies die.

Leslie, wait until fall ... you're in your hot season, too!

Gail, I hope by fall your thumb and wrist will allow you to do more gardening and blogging!

Linda, if you can still find a beach umbrella at Sam's (the kind that pounds into the sand/dirt), I've found those helpful for shading plants that are getting too much sun.
Layanee said…
Very interesting Cindy. I generally don't have a problem here in NE with this but buying annuals late in the season for extra color when they are quite pot bound, this technique could make a difference and it is one I will try. Many thanks for sharing your experience.
Oh my! I would never have thought getting rid of peat would make such a big difference! I have always used peat in all my mixes--no wonder I lost so many plants in the heat of this summer! I am going to try your method for myself. I am hibernating until Oct. 1st, so it may be awhile...